Steampunk Book Review: “Warlord of the Air”
I recently learned a totally amazing word. “Vellichor” was invented by John Koenig to mean “the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time…” I am sure many of you have experienced this even if you didn’t have the word for it. I have been away from the United States for a year now, I am definitely in used bookstore withdrawal. I miss going on my little treasure hunts for science fiction and fantasy books, and of course, Steampunk books in particular. It seems an especially apt word for today’s review of a book that is also focused on the passage of time (or in fact, times).
I managed to pick up a yellowing copy of The Warlord of the Air just before I left America, and I have been carting it around from country to country. I finally got a chance to read it on a long day of travel as I was leaving Sofia, Bulgaria and it was well worth the wait. This is the first in Michael Moorcock’s A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, which were published between 1971 and 1981.
The tale is framed as a story that was told to Moorcock’s fictional grandfather of the same name, who recorded Bastable’s adventure while on holiday on a tiny island in 1903. He sees Bastable for the first time when he is forcibly ejected from a ship where he had stowed away, and is left to fend for himself. As much out of boredom as charity, “Moorcock Sr.” takes the stranger under his wing and invites him to come back to his hotel for a meal. After some coaxing, Bastable starts to tell him about his life, and they end up locked in the room for three days while the story is recorded.
At the outset, Bastable is on a peace-keeping mission for the British army in 1902. He and a few other officers are invited into the sacred city of Teku Banga to negotiate with the king who reigned over this millennia-old society. They are led into the labyrinthine Palace of the Future Buddha and drugged by their host. When Bastable realizes the trick, and the others flee the chamber where they are eating with the king, and soon become lost in the tunnels under the palace. Something happens to him in the pitch-blackness and he loses consciousness.
When he awakes, he simply believes that there has been an earthquake, but the truth is far stranger than he could have imagined. The city around him lies in ruins, but this is old destruction and his clothes hang off him in aged tatters. Eventually, he finds out that he was been somehow transported to the year 1973, but no 1973 that you or I might recognize. The British Empire has continued to grow and flourish in the absence of WWI, spreading “civilization” throughout the globe. But as Bastable finds after joining the Airship police, the peace is only surface-deep and in many places terrorists and rebels are trying to throw off the yolk of oppression.
Alternate histories are some of my absolute favorite stories to read, and this one did not disappoint. It was fairly short, but also very insightful, which is an excellent combination. Moorcock has a unique perspective on history, both real and invented, and I definitely recommend that you give his work a try. I recently started reading a new compilation of short stories called The Time Traveler’s Almanac, and I was also thoroughly delighted by Moorcock’s Pale Roses. I look forward to getting back to the States in a few months, where I can resume my hunt for the rest of Moorcock’s books in the series.
Have you ever read anything by Moorcock? What did you think?
Steampunk Book Review: The Poison Belt
One of my all time favorite literary characters is Professor Challenger, who I’m afraid is forever doomed to be overshined by Conan Doyle’s better known protagonist, Sherlock Holmes. Challenger is every bit as smart as Sherlock, but is both more pompous and more energetic than the great detective, and I find myself laughing out loud at his over-the-top confidence and sharp wit on a regular basis while reading.
The Poison belt came out in 1913, and centers on the same cadre of adventurers from the first book. They are having a reunion at Challenger’s country home a few years after their great discovery of the The Lost World. Unfortunately, what is meant to be a lovely weekend is interrupted by nothing less than the end of the world as we know it. It begins with what appears to be an infectios disease, but Professor Challenger riddles out the truth, that aether is to blame.
The prevailing theories during the “steam era” about the medium that makes up our universe all centered on aether. It fills those empty spaces between everything, and influences the effects of light and gravity. During the story our planet passes through a belt of this mysterious substance that is totally antithetical to animal life, and there is no telling how long we will be subject to the effects of the this poison belt. Our heroes watch as one by one the people in the fields, the birds in the sky and the horses pulling carriages all drift into their final rest, while they attempt to prolong their own lives for a few precious hours within an oxegenated environment.
I don’t usually like to give away the endings or twists in the books I review, but it is evident that the human race must somehow survive considering the reader is in fact both human and alive, but while reading the protagonists see no means of escape and spend much of their time reflecting on the meaning of life and human beings’ place in the universe. This may seem a depressing subject matter, but Conan Doyle does a good job of keeping the meloncholy in check and balancing it with the banter of the characters and the giddiness that comes from the aether entering one’s system.
It’s a nice, short little book which is widely available for free download because it is no longer in copyright. The Mister and I read it in a matter of hours and we both really enjoyed it. I can’t wait to read the next Challenger title, The Land of Mist.
Steampunk Book Review: Clockwork Princess (Infernal Devices 3)
Even though all three of Casandra Clare’s Infernal Devices books came out between 2009-2013, I didn’t get around to reading the third one until now. This is not to say that I wasn’t excited to find out the conclusion, but I didn’t get a chance to pick it up before I left the English-speaking world for a spell. You can imagine my elation when I found an ample English language section in a local Sofia, Bulgaria bookstore the other day and Clockwork Princess was waiting for me! Even though it comes in at 507 pages, I tore right through it in a couple of days. It is a totally satisfying wrapping-up of the plot lines from the first two books.
The book begins with a confrontation between the London Institute and the giant worm demon that Benedict Lightwood has become due to his affliction with “demon pox.” His sons, Gabriel and Gideon, as well as Will’s shadowhunter-in-training sister, Cecily, accompany Will, Jem and Tessa to the Lightwood estate. In the interim since events of Clockwork Prince came to a close, the Magister and his automaton army seem to have vanished, leaving little for Will to focus on besides the engagement of his best friend, Jem, to the love of his life, Tessa. The battle is a welcome distraction until at the end when Jem collapses due to his long-standing illness.
It turns out he has been taking his drugs far too quickly in an attempt to be worthy of Tessa’s love, and he has burned out his entire year’s supply in a matter of weeks. The Magister has bought up all of the remaining drug in the entire city, leaving the shadowhunters at his mercy if they want Jem to live. Tessa is the key to the Magister’s nefarious plot for domination over the shadowhunters he believed have wronged him, but her actual purpose is still a mystery. On top of the threat from the outside, trouble is also brewing for the head of the London Institute, who didn’t turn out to be as compliant and meek as the Consul believed she would be. Internal politics, passionate romance and the threat of utter annihilation combine into a great climax for a wonderful trilogy.
Clockwork Angel Review (Infernal Devices 1)
Clockwork Prince Review (Infernal Devices 2)
Steampunk Book Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)
It’s time to return again to our regularly scheduled Jules Verne programming. It doesn’t look like I will make my original writing goal for this weekend, but I will hopefully get to 10,000 words by the end of the month, so I will keep posting things after my tribute to Verne is over.
Voyage au centre de la Terre is the third Verne novel I have read, and so far it is my favorite. There are multiple translations and the names of the main characters are different depending on which one you read. I read the version where the narrator is called “Harry Lawson” rather than Axel Lidenbrock. According to Project Gutenberg, this 1871 translation is the one that is most widely circulated, but it is also not as true to the original text as the 1877 version. Apparently what I read was somewhat abridged, but was still about 470 pages.
So here’s a very brief synopsis: Harry starts his story by setting the scene of his life with his eccentric uncle, whom is most often referred to as “the professor.” But the story really gets going when the professor discovers a coded message scrawled in an antique text he has just purchased. The former owner was a 16th century alchemist named Saknussem who left behind directions to the finding the exact center of the Earth.
The enthusiastic professor drags the reluctant Harry along for the ride to Iceland, where Saknussem’s tunnel is located. With the help of a taciturn Icelandic hunter, they embark on an incredible journey of discovery into the depths beneath our feet. Along the way they encounter living fossils from bygone ages, a huge subterranean sea and a multitude of other wonders.
There were two main reasons that I liked this book more than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. First, the first-person narration by Harry was often very humorous, especially when it came to his own misgivings and cowardice. Second, this story was not bogged down by minutiae. There were only a few Latin names dropped in here and there, and because Verne was pulling this place out of his imagination rather than reporting on a real locations, it freed him to be able to drive the action any way he pleased. It would be nice to read a version that has gone through a modern editing process to get rid of the redundancies that so often occur in these old serials. For instance, the phrase “my uncle, the professor” occurs several times, and the Icelander is referred to as “Hans, our guide” almost without fail, as if there would be some other Hans wandering around hundreds of miles below the Earth’s crust. I am sure it helped readers of the original serial over the course of the year it took to read the whole thing, but it does get to be a bit repetitive when reading it as a novel.
The science in this book doesn’t stand the test of time quite as well as others from this period, but for when it was written it was right in the middle of the scholarly debate concerning the origins of life on Earth. In the 1860s, academics had only recently abandoned the straight Biblical interpretation of our origins in light of the discovery of fossil hominids in unexpected strata. There were also distinct schools of thought concerning the nature of the planet itself, the inner workings of which were not fully explained until the theory of plate tectonics was put forth almost a century later.
Perhaps this is the reason, not to mention the enormous sets that would be required, that Journey to the Center of the Earth has only rarely been adapted to film and television compared to Verne’s other works. The first film was made in 1959, but it wasn’t remade in English again until the 2008 re-interpretation which put a contemporary uncle (Brendan Fraser) and nephew (Josh Hutcherson) on the path described in Verne’s novel rather than following the narrative as it occurred in 1864.
Enjoy reading this review? Check out some of my others!
The Time Machine
The First Men in the Moon
The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack
The Iron Jackal
The Monster Hunter
Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (2012) Adds Time Travel to the Classic Tale
In this made-for-TV flick part of the mystery of the island comes from relocating it from off the coast of New Zealand to the Bermuda Triangle. According to the movie, ships regularly disappear from this spot because of a rift in time that sucks in travelers. This allows the story to include not only 17th century pirates and refugees from the American Civil War, but also some ladies from the present. I really enjoyed this twist because it was a chance to call attention to how much has changed in the last century and a half. There are culture clashes even between fellow Americans because of advances in technology and social norms.
Ever since the 1961 version, the trend with movie adaptations of The Mysterious Island seems to be to add some kind of creepy critter to up the ante when it comes to danger and action to what is really a pretty subtle story about a group of castaways. In both the 1961 the 2005 version, all of the animals on the island grew to huge proportions. In this one, in addition to a giant octopus blocking their escape by sea, the island is overrun by apelike creatures who (spoiler alert) turn out to be Nemo’s disenfranchised crew.
The writing had a few holes and the acting was pretty hit or miss, but it was a fun movie all the same. I, of course, like “bad” movies so I will probably put with more than your average movie viewer. You can watch it on Netflix or through youtube below.
This mockbuster was made to piggyback on the major motion picture release the same year of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which was a sequel to the big budget Brendan Fraser movie, Journey to the Center of the Earth that came out in 2008. I’ll bring you reviews of those as well, so stay tuned during March for even more Verne and adaptations!
Steampunk Book Review: Soulless (2009)
Gail Carriger asks and answers an interesting question in her Parasol Protectorate series: “What if the supernatural was integrated into every day life?” Against the backdrop of Victorian London, the acerbic “spinster”, Alexia Tarrabotti, finds herself in a world that has done just that. Vampires and werewolves have been accepted into society, with some even acting as agents and advisers to the crown.
The supernatural set all have an overabundance of “soul” which allows them to survive the transition to immortal. Alexia, on the other hand, was born without any “soul” at all, which means her touch mitigates the abilities of others. When science meets the supernatural, Alexia finds herself in the middle of scheme to understand the inner workings of the soul, and how to use this knowledge to wipe out the immortals, including her werewolf paramour, forever.
This was a very fun book and I would definitely recommend it. Alexia’s inner monologue made me giggle, especially as she tries to navigate her relationship with the werewolf Alpha. To borrow a phrase from The Princess Bride, this is definitely “a kissing book,” so if you aren’t looking for romance in your Steampunk you might want to steer clear. That being said, I thought the dialog was intelligent and witty, and the world that Carriger creates is extremely entertaining. Starting in 2012, Soulless was also adapted as a graphic novel with artwork by Rem.
I will definitely be picking up Book 2, Changeless.
Have you read any of the Parasol Protectorate books? What did you think?
Steampunk Book Review: Letters Between Gentlemen
Sometimes, Steampunk books are serious challenges to the ideals of the Victorian age and tread on the dark side, and other times they are silly fun. Letters Between Gentleman, by award-winning “chap hop” artist Professor Elemental and accomplished author Nimue Brown, is most definitely the latter.
As implied by the title, this book is presented as correspondence between the mad genius, Professor Elemental, and his hapless benefactor. The sister of said benefactor is concerned for her brother’s welfare in light of the string of accidental deaths at the hands (mechanical, animal or some combination of the two) of the Professor’s creations. So she hires a private detective, Algernon Spoon, to look into their association. The book is also populated with the Professor’s “Notes to self” on a range of topics including the best way to preserve beheaded badgers and his on-going battle with the mice he trained to take dictation.
The format left a little to be desired, but on the whole I really enjoyed reading this book. I regularly laughed out loud at throughout at the crazy inventions, cease and desist letters from would-be clients and humorously exaggerated gender norms. Some books carry their readers along on a tide of action, but I kept on reading this one because it was purely entertaining.
Letters came out in September of 2014 and is available now as an ebook or hardcover.
If you aren’t familiar with the Professor’s music videos, check out the animated piece featured on Disney’s Phineas and Ferb below, or watch any of several posted on his website.
Steampunk Book Review: The Lost World (1912)
Sherlock Holmes is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character, but definitely not his only one. I have noticed that some of the newer renditions of Mr. Holmes show him as, at best, suffering from Asberger’s syndrome, and at worst, a monumental jerk. If you have read Conan Doyle’s books, you would know that this is not actually consistent with Sherlock’s character, but it is spot on for the (sometimes) hero of The Lost World, Professor Challenger.
Challenger, like Holmes, is a genius, but he doesn’t spend his time hanging out in London. He is an adventurer, a trail-blazer and a scientist extraordinaire (and doesn’t he know it!) who will use his intellect to thwart his academic enemies, and his fists to back up his intellect. I thoroughly enjoyed his turns of phrase and clever barbs throughout The Lost World even more than the premise of the story itself, and he was a great foil for the young and inexperienced narrator.
Like Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Conan Doyle explores the prospect of a place that time has left behind. When Challenger’s assertions of its existence are called into question, the National Geographical Society mounts an expedition to investigate his claims that there is a plateau in South America where dinosaurs still roam the earth. And not just dinosaurs! There are all kinds of blasts from the past that have wandered to the secluded spot over the years, some of them remaining unchanged and some of them evolving along a whole new line.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. This is another one that the Mister and I read out loud together and that was a great way to experience it. The dialog between Challenger and his rival scientist, Summerlee, is fantastic, and there were many times I laughed out loud. I also know just enough biology to appreciate the rival points of view and interaction of species. I can’t wait to read the next Professor Challenger title, The Poison Belt.
Have you ever read any Professor Challenger stories? What did you think?